Life Cycle Assessment:  Counting Carbon as part of the Bottom Line

Recently I took down a wardrobe in my daughters bedroom and I installed a new wardrobe.  I cut the plywood from the old wardrobe into strips, cleaned and sanded the boards, filled and painted them and installed them as skirting boards which I was missing in another part of the house.  I was proudly telling someone about all the work I had done, and they told me that it was possible to buy new skirting boards that would be less work and would have saved all my time and effort. 

Of course, this person was right, but only from a particular point of view:  the financial point of view.  I realised that I had reduced waste and reused perfectly good material instead of using virgin timber for my skirting boards, but that all my effort didn’t register any credit in the financial system.

This week I spoke at a seminar, organised by Limerick County Council and The Rediscovery Centre about how to procure more sustainable buildings as part of the circular economy.  I used my work on the Boiler House project in Ballymun to illustrate what we achieved using various strategies.  It boiled down to asking for the right thing in the right way to get the result that you want.

My presentation received a lot of favourable comment during the Q&A but I was disappointed at the level of the questions I was asked.  I was speaking to over 100 people involved in public procurement and it was clear that they all were using the financial model to try to generate a more sustainable outcome, but it was the wrong tool for the job. 

Sustainability does not stack up when all you are counting is money and we need another metric to use so that we can account for the environmental cost to society and civilisation of taking raw material, making things with it and throwing it away.  There is no place called away where we can throw things indefinitely.  This is already having a serious negative impact on us and our use of our natural resources in this way can’t go on forever.

Fortunately, I was at another event this week, run by the IGBC, which I hope will provide a solution to this problem, and the solution is Life Cycle Assessment and what they count is Carbon.  By measuring Embodied Carbon we can account for the energy used and waste created by what we make and what happens to that product at the end of its life.  By using the carbon yardstick I would get the credit I deserve for making my skirting boards out of an old wardrobe and I would have been penalised for buying new ones.

Life Cycle Assessment balances the environmental books using Carbon as its metric and it will radically change the way we think about making things and what we make them from, using things and how long we use them, and finally what we do with things when we don’t want them anymore.

Counting Carbon is not the only answer to our global problems, and it is not without its own difficulties and challenges, but it is a big part of measuring the total cost of how we live our lives.  It is the right tool for the job and if we use it right we can get the result that we need.  I hope that we can embrace this challenge quickly enough so that we make the changes necessary before it is too late.

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